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  In search of a “Hindu” identity  


By: B Shantanu
October 04, 2006
iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


In all honesty, I should have written on this topic months, maybe even years ago – Some times I think this should have been the first post on my blog[1] – which I call “Hindu Dharma”.

I have been asked on numerous occasions, what is it to be a “Hindu”? And yet, I desisted writing anything on this topic until now. Why? Not because I had nothing to say – but because I was looking for a good, coherent answer and a pithy explanation; a summary that I could point people to…so that others can read and understand for themselves the core of “Hinduism” and our belief system, our values. 

I often wonder what is the best way to define and describe my identity as a “Hindu”? Our scriptures are silent on the issue. Our belief system, values and what we can loosely label as “religion” is not codified. The “religion” that we follow makes little or no demands on us, and growing up in a pre-dominantly Hindu environment in India, I never paused to think about it.

But when I came across this article[2] by Suresh Balaraman, it struck a chord.  

Ten sentences about “Hinduism”

Suresh started his quest when he realised that he could not say even “10 sentences about Hinduism” – especially to a non-Hindu.

Suresh lives in the US and is, in his own words, one of “the 6% of Indians who have had college education.” He also has additional degrees which makes the case even more poignant.  

If, as he says, “We (i.e. well-educated, articulate people) can't say something about our religion then there is something totally wrong with us, the Hindus.”

I believe at least part of the responsibility lies with our religious scholars, leaders and preachers. But each one of us is responsible too. How many of us have made an attempt to learn and understand more about Hinduism – or more accurately “Sanatan Dharma”? So the blame is widely shared. 

Suresh suggests a few reasons behind our inability to articulate the core values of Hinduism: 

Hinduism does not place any demands on us. “It has allowed us too much leeway to pursue our spiritual goals. This, some refer to as the uniqueness and greatness of our religion. However, this has also caused Hindus to remain ignorant  of the basics of their religion. There is no sense of commonality of belief amongst the Hindus. We  don’t share a lot…There is no sense of brotherhood among Hindus as it exists among other religionists.” 

At best, we have a hazy idea about our religion. “Our reluctance to speak about our religion may be due to the fact that we really aren't clear cut in our understanding of our religion. Most of us didn't study the religion in a methodical way in India. We really didn't have to. We just absorbed the religious life around us in India. Like pickles we were soaked in it…we learnt most of our religious knowledge passively.

We practiced our religion in whatever way our parents told us. Our parents probably got their education passively from their parents. Most of our religious education was caste based, sectarian, and provincial. It wasn't a comprehensive one. Most of us learnt some rites and rituals, some prayers, some mantras, and felt that would suit our purpose. Probably it did.
No stranger asked us what we believed in. No one expressed any curiosity in knowing our religion…there was no need for us to know it well enough to be able to explain to others.”

There are differences among us in our emphasis and practice of religion. “There is a smouldering sense of animosity among Hindus because each one
 thinks that his practice of the religion is better than anyone else’s. This is the curse of
India or shall I say only Hindus. Every Indian thinks "I am not inferior to anyone, but how dare the other fellow thinks that he is equal to me (don't care whether he belongs to my religion/hometown). I will not tolerate that". We dislike or even hate the religious practices of other Hindus. No wonder the Moguls and the British had the least difficulty in conquering us.
We unfairly claim that the British divided and ruled over us. Actually they exploited the lack of fellowship among Hindus to their advantage.”

A “Hindu”? What’s that?

Why is it important to know all this anyway? 

Those of us who either live and work abroad or in the course of their work, frequently come in contact with people from other countries and religions often get stumped when faced with questions such as the ones Suresh faced, “do the Hindus worship Idols by the million? Do they worship cows? Do they still practice caste system? and so on..” 

We are unable to articulate a response – in many cases, we simply don’t know what to say. That may have been good enough in a world where no one really “cared” about India and Indians. But in a rapidly globalizing world and one in which religion is acquiring increasing prominence, this will simply not be good enough. 

Our inability or unwillingness to answer these questions marks as, at best, as ignorant of our own culture and beliefs and at worst, unconcerned about what is probably the most salient and defining part of our identity as an Indian. 

I also have a selfish motive behind this. As Suresh says, “If we could all share the same thoughts about Hinduism, it would build some fellowship among us.”  And I think that alone is a very good reason for us to try and understand Hinduism in terms that we can easily explain to others.  

So how can we capture the essential elements, the essence of Hinduism[3] in a few bullet points? Here is what I suggest:

  • Hinduism is an ancient religion and has evolved over the course of centuries. It started off c. 3000 B.C. It has been almost continuously modified over the long course of its history.. Although the religious practices have evolved and continue to change, the philosophy remains in the Vedas
  • We believe that God exists in two “forms”: (i) in a  formless, omnipresent, and omnipotent form called “Brahman” which (symbolized in the form of "O M") and (ii) in the form of various icons and images that help us better imagine his attributes compared to an abstract form
  • Regardless of the form we worship, we are aware that all the different forms eventually lead to the same God and each of us is free to choose his or her own path to worship and salvation[4]. The forms that are most commonly worshipped include the Trinity of (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). The creative energy is frequently personified as “Devi” and is an essential representation of feminine power and as the source of all life
  • Hindus believe in the theory of “karma” and in the cycle of life and death (Note that we believe in the “cycle” of birth and re-birth as opposed to just one instance of re-incarnation or re-birth)
  • The essence of “karma” is that actions have consequences that cannot be escaped. The belief in “karma” (e.g. that our predicament is the result of our past actions) gives us strength to accept things we can't change[5]. We also believe that we can shape our future by the deeds that we do and the spirit in which we do them
  • Hindus believe that lasting peace & happiness (salvation or “Moksha”) can only be achieved by moving beyond this cycle of life and death.
  • We believe that the core of our religious belief and philosophy is found in the Vedas and Upanishads. The “Bhagvad Gita” (literally “The Song of God”) explains some of these values in a simple and easy to understand form. Our epics (Ramayana , Mahabaratha and the Puranas) illustrate the core of
    our values in the form of stories
  • We believe in the power of prayer, sacred hymns and pious thoughts. We usually have a place in the house for a private altar (“Devghar”) which is a representation of the “Abode of God”. On special occasions (weddings, birth, marriage) and festivals, we visit temples for special prayers

These, in my humble opinion, are some of our core beliefs and values. There may be more and you may disagree with some of these – but we have to make a beginning somewhere – and this is a modest attempt towards that end. 

And why is all this important?

As I wrote[6] on my blog, “Hindu-ism” or “Sanatan Dharma” is the oldest surviving major religion in the world today…and the only one that gives you the choice, the freedom and the luxury of beliefs that is un-afforded in any other extant set of beliefs/

It is a religion and culture that articulated and defined the concepts of tolerance and mutual respect even as most of mankind was still deep in the hinterlands of cultural and spiritual enlightenment.


One can be justifiably proud of it…but before pride must come awareness and at least a basic understanding…otherwise the word “Hindu” simply becomes a label.

So let us work together towards understanding it and spreading awareness about it. As Suresh says, “Let us give it the vigour it needs. Let us spread the word not only to our children, but to whoever (else) wants to know about it.” 

Above all, spread the word amongst fellow Hindus - for unless we understand [7]and believe ourselves, how can we convince others? 

P.S. As I wrote above, this is a modest attempt and will remain incomplete until I get feedback, comments and suggestions for improving the list of bullet points. Please email me your thoughts and ideas. In the end, a well-articulated, 10-point bullet list is probably more powerful than a dozen essays. 

B Shantanu

       Send your views to author



[3] I particularly liked Suresh’s nuanced recommendation to resolve the dilemma about labelling Hinduism as a way of life vs. a religion

“Let us not confuse people: When someone asks us about Hinduism, let us not confuse them by saying that Hinduism is not a religion , it is a way of life…or We don’t call it Hinduism, we call it Sanathana Dharma (eternal law).  Let us be clear cut. Let us accept the fact that we do have a religion. Hinduism like other religions has some ideas of what or who God is, what is God’s relationship with humans and other beings. Since we incorporate our religious teachings in our day to day living we feel Hindu way of life is Hinduism.”

[4] This is vitally important and underpins the liberal, tolerant and open attitude that Hindus have towards the followers of other religions, various sects and beliefs. In place of contradictions, we see unity pf purpose; the religion is therefore intrinsically inclusive, liberal, tolerant and “secular” in the truest sense of the word – in as much as it does not distinguish between different forms of belief and worship and does not consider one as superior to another.

[5] Foreign commentators and those not familiar with the concept often equate “karma” with hopelessness or fatalism. This is not true and we should try and vigorously clarify this if we come across such an interpretation.

[7] Finally, two websites that can be an excellent supplement for anyone who wishes to find out more: http://www.hinduwisdom.info/index_new.htm and TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT HINDUISM 

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B Shantanu

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Four Years, Two Attacks, One Story

Hindu contribution to Mathematics

Varna and Jatis: The Need for Clarity

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All articles by:
B Shantanu


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